With the Help of Whales, a Choreographer Falls Into an Abyss

Whales, Black bodies, the ocean, climate change, protest movements — over the past few years, they have all made their way into work by Mayfield Brooks, a choreographer, dancer and vocalist.

The latest setting for Brooks’s ever-evolving dance project is a majestic one: the Tall Ship Wavertree, the last iron-hulled, three-masted cargo ship in the world. Built in 1885 and docked at Pier 16, the Wavertree extends about the length of a football field.

This week, as part of the River to River Festival, Brooks (who uses they/them pronouns) finishes their whale journey with two works: “Whale Fall Abyss,” a dance performance on the ship, which is part of the South Street Seaport Museum; and “Whale Fall Reckoning,” a companion installation at a gallery — a former munitions room storage space — on Governors Island.

In “Abyss,” Brooks, wearing white, performs a compass dance — named for its circular choreography — on one end of the ship while Camilo Restrepo, in a long, swirling mint skirt that trails to the deck, is poised on a high platform, his torso undulating in what Brooks calls a spine dance. Under an American flag rippling in the breeze, Restrepo looks a little like the Statue of Liberty. Eventually Brooks, now in the same skirt, makes their way to him and they conjoin for an extended spine duet. Slowly they mesh into each other, one cradling the other in grief. It’s like their bodies are melting.

This comes back to Brooks’s original point of departure: the act of decomposing, or a whale fall. After a whale dies, it sinks to the ocean floor where its carcass supplies nutrients to deepwater creatures. It becomes the ocean’s food.

In “Abyss,” Brooks — who began the project during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests — looks at how death and decay go beyond the body. “How do I surrender to this ongoing decomposition process, this ongoing regeneration through the whale fall, this ongoing space of decay?” they said. “That to me is maybe the foundation of the work.”

For this iteration, Brooks has made a zine, in which they write, “I grieve and I decompose this grief daily.”

We are all creatures on earth; we all decompose. And here, on the Wavertree, so does Brooks’s whale fall project, which begin as an experimental dance film in 2021. That sense of disintegration happens in the work’s conclusion, in the ship’s cargo hold, where Brooks is joined by Dorothy Carlos on the electric cello. In this final section, a haunting combination of music and dance, Brooks calls up ghosts and ancestors from whalers and slave ships. Extended sounds emanate from their body that feel as deep as the ocean floor.

Brooks’s presence — otherworldly and raw — takes on a penetrating, guttural sadness in the vast cargo hold where they are seen, at first, from a distance. In a way, Brooks’s idea of a decomposing dance happens before your eyes as Brooks and Carlos gradually lower the volume until their sounds and notes feel like whispers.

The performance is “almost becoming the whale fall,” Brooks said. “It’s like this decomposed dance and vocal performance. There are no words. The movement is confined to smaller spaces or our bodies actually become the whale in a sense. And the sound score is more and more ephemeral and less legible.”

Over the past few years, Brooks has noted some analogies between the bodies of whales and the bodies of Black people. “I was looking at the slave ship and I was looking at the whaling ship, and what I noticed was that of course with the slave ship, the cargo is the African bodies,” Brooks said. “But in the whaling ship, that’s where they store the blubber.”

This, Brooks said, “is the entanglement. This is how slavery and the use of Black bodies as property intersected with the whaling industry.”

They see the ocean as “the womb of the earth” and something that needs protection, ideas that will shape their next project. These days, Brooks said, ship strikes are one of the biggest causes of whale deaths. And there is also the heaviness of the present moment. How it resonates in Brooks’s body comes down to the spine.

“I see connections with the way the whale dances and the way the body can move through water with the spine,” Brooks said. “What is there to reclaim within this heaviness? And with the dancing and with the sounds, for me, it’s about this kind of resonance with water. It’s memory. It’s the way that the spine can move and can sustain dance or a movement or swimming, which to me is, you know, dance.”

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